Hearing why there was no instrument practise done week after week no longer surprises me. Almost every pupil goes through this phase at some time or another, usually for an accumulation of various reasons. We are human- we are not perfect. We succumb to distractions followed by feelings of guilt, then fear of what we will sound like again after a prolonged hiatus! But, like a ‘bad week’ for someone trying to diet, it is not the end of the world. There are ways out of this tunnel if you truly want to find the exit…
Being real is an important first step. Admit to yourself and to the tutor if the joy has completely departed (or been replaced by something else), if there is no time what so ever in your busy schedule or if there is no love for the music any longer. It is the right thing to do, being honest! Firstly, however, there are ten substantial questions to ask before throwing in the towel-
1. Motive. What reason made you want to learn the instrument in the first place? Has something changed?
2. Listening. What sort of music do you love to listen to? Have you been learning this genre/style on your instrument? If not, why not? (Choosing tunes you would love to learn, at an appropriate level is a reasonable request to be met by instrumental tuition.)
3. Expectation. If you set yourself targets or goals, were you expecting too much, too quickly? Be reasonable! Encourage yourself. If nobody but your tutor encourages you each week, keep going, you CAN do it! If there is a particular exercise or tune you play well, record it and play it back to motivate yourself as a reminder of what you can achieve.
4. Dislike. Is there an aspect of your lessons you do not like? If so, have you communicated this lack of enjoyment to the tutor? Communication is vital for tutors to develop a fun, varied, personally-tailored learning experience.
5. Practise Technique. Learning the instrument can be approached in multiple ways, and every tutor’s teaching style is different. If lessons are fun but practise is not, ask your tutor for some suggestions and tips to try at home to mix-up your own routine.
6. Distraction. What are the main causes of distraction which impedes practising at home? Is there a possibility of changing the practise schedule to a different time for better productivity? I teach students who are parents, so they wait until their children are in bed before they practise their instruments. I also teach students who are early risers so they practise before eating breakfast. This way, their busy evenings are no longer a reason to neglect the instrument.
7. Repertoire. This is a BIG ISSUE! Personally, I have tackled some challenging pieces of music that I was glad I spent quality time polishing but there were days these practise sessions were harder to manage than others. Out of total time spent on practising repertoire, more of it should be fun than daunting. Select a variety of fun, exciting repertoire that has a balance between challenge and comfort zone. Ensure the level of music is not beyond reachable. It is okay to quit playing a piece of music you do not enjoy playing. Do not waste time punishing yourself with something that brings no joy.
8. Suitability. Ensure that the music selected to practise will sound good on the instrument you are learning on. There are pieces of music that I love to listen to but they are performed better by a different instrument or by a whole ensemble/orchestra rather than a piano. Recognise it would not give pleasure to practise a tune on a solo instrument, which is missing a host of rhythmic and dynamic intensity, required by a full band. It is important to bear in mind which instrument/s the composer had in mind when writing a piece of music. There are melodies that are designed for singers’ voices that sound powerful as a pop song with backing band, but do not carry the same weight played on a solo guitar or piano. It is important to appreciate this, rather than to expect yourself to sound like a cherished movie soundtrack as a solo musician.
9. Physical factors. There are hurdles physically that are worth bearing in mind for instrumentalists. For me specifically as a pianist with not the largest hand span, learning Rachmaninov or Liszt piano pieces is neither a realistic nor fair goal to myself! I can, however take delight in the fact I can play speedily and enjoy playing to my strengths in music with the hand size I have been given.
10. Conveyor belt exams. There are students I have come in contact with who experienced a dissimilar approach to instrument progression than one I take. I refer to this experience as an ‘exam after exam’ method! Sadly they cannot sight-read Grade 1 music despite owning a Grade 5 certificate. They were taught to pass exams rather than enjoy their instrument. They lack theory understanding and aural awareness. They were not shown how to explore a variety of genres, play around, recognise music elements, have fun improvising, make up games, accompany/duet or try composing. The pressure of passing exams became the only drive in their practise sessions. While external assessments can be worthwhile to give credit in demonstrating an ability, they do not mean that the instrumentalist can play a tune ad hoc for an impromptu gathering or request. The certificate can be deemed of little value in my opinion if the music student can only ‘perform exam pieces’ and hides away from actually ‘playing the instrument.’ If the instrumental tutor teaches only using exam curriculum, I personally suggest changing tutor!
Hopefully the suggestions above have given food for thought or a starting point for discussion with the disenchanted musician-in-training. With some adjustments, perhaps the exit from the practise-avoidant tunnel is closer than first glance!
If however, none of the aforementioned proposals prompt motivation or reason as to why a lack of practise is happening then might I suggest, in the words of lyricist Roy Hawkins, “The thrill is gone”? If this is the case, accept it for what it is. Maybe this is not a good time (for whatever reason) to be practising the instrument. Maybe one day, the pupil will change their mind. Maybe not. Either is okay but it is important to be real. For both the student and the teacher’s sake!